This morning, among the various notifications from random sites that you ‘like’ or sign up for, I had this one from the Huff Post. Its an Infographic ( a popular new tool!) on the most popular books of all time, which they claim ‘gives a good guess based on estimated editions, translations, and copies sold’. Since I am interested in all things on books I went through it in some detail. Of course, the only two books that havesold in the billion+ category are the Quran and Holy Bible – that was not a surprise. Of the 29 others (a couple for a group of books, or an author as in the case of Shakespeare and Rowlings) – I had not heard of three: Dreams of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe by CS Lewis (was never a sc-fi fan) and The very hungry caterpillaer by Eric Carle (a children’s book after my time).
I find that I have read 25 of the remaining 26 – and owned copies of many at some point or the other in my life. I am therefore not surprised that their sales run into these millions. Of the ancients, Homer is the only one who makes the list – but however old the book, the printing press came about only in medieval times! And I’m not sure how the sales of earlier times are recorded. The next one on the list in chronology terms in Shakespeare (1564-1616), for whom no numbers are quoted at all, since his works were never copyrighted!!
From the 17th century, Cervantes with his charismatic Don Quixote, records sales of 500 million in 35 translations and 963 editions. The 18th century goes unrepresented, while the masters of the 19th have 9 books. Of these 7 – Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, Jules Verne’s 20,00 leagues under the sea, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Ryder Haggard’s She, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula- show sales ranging from 12 to 83 million while Tale of Two cities by Dickens has sold 200 million copies and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll has sold 100 millio . There are 10 titles from the 20th century of which 5 are American (as against 1 of 9 from the previous century), and the highest sales have been recorded by Lord of the Rings by Tolkien (series than a single book at 150 million, Little Prince by Saint-Exupery at 140 million and And then there were none by Agatha Christie at 100 million.
In our present century ‘The Millenium Triology’ (2005-07) by Stieg Larssen has already notched up 50 million in sales and Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ (2003) 80 million. The outright winner by far is Chairman Mao whose quotations show a figure of 800 million – but can these be termed sales? It was compulsory reading for every student, and every soldier and every one else had to have a copy. So its not even fair to have him on this list.
And by any criteria, the rockstar is Rowlings who has notched up sales of 450 million copies of her Harry Potter series (7 books in all) betweeen 1997 and 2007. By these numbers, Don Quixote (500 million) is the only fictional character who has been more popular in overall numbers but he has had a 400 year advantage!!!
From a personal point of view, Mao is the only one I have not read and don’t intend to. Although I have read the others, I was struck by the number of the books dealing with the supernatural and unnatural that are represented (Dracula, Tolkien, CS Lewis etc) – and I have not been partial to this genre. So I have to confess that I did not read Potter beyond book 3. However it was good to see some of my all time favorites, such as Dickens, Agatha Christie and Jules Verne on the list. For what ever value these lists may have, books continue to have readership. We will always want to be told stories, in what ever medium we may choose for the communication. For me it will always be the written word!!